How to Inflate an Ego in Three Easy Steps

One of the main characteristics that distinguish character disturbed individuals from more well-adjusted and even more “neurotic” folks is the unhealthy and imbalanced sense of self-worth they possess.  And when someone has an unwarranted or inflated opinion of him or herself, problems in relationships are inevitable, as are problems for society at large.  But very few understand how modern culture’s tendency to heap attention and praise on folks for all the wrong things contributes to the problems many have developing a healthy sense of self worth.

In last week’s post on Merit, Virtue and Character, I mentioned that I would be re-visiting the issue of meritorious conduct and the importance of recognizing and reinforcing such conduct when trying to assist someone in developing their character.  But before I explore that issue a little more, I’d like to share with you a true story:

A couple of weeks ago I was with some friends and acquaintances at a small gathering.  One of the individuals there, with whom I have a cordial but not particularly close relationship, began talking about the problems she had been having with her daughter.  But as she talked about this young woman, who is on the verge of turning 35 years old yet is still having major problems functioning well in life, I was struck by many of the things she was saying:  “She’s such a special and gifted child.  She’s so smart…, smarter than any of her brothers, and smarter than me by a mile.  And she’s such a gifted artist, not to mention drop dead gorgeous.  I’m in awe of her.  I’ve told her all the time just how special she is.  I’ve told her every since she was a little girl.  It breaks my heart that her life is such a shipwreck.”  I had to hold my tongue, but there were so many things I wanted to say to this woman.  You see, after many years working with character-impaired young persons and their families, it became all too clear me some time ago what kinds of interpersonal “dynamics” help shape the little monsters some youngsters become.

Nothing is more toxic to the ego than affording positive attributions to something for which a person cannot legitimately claim credit.  This is a major principle I outline in my book Character Disturbance, and it is, in fact, a big part of one of what I term the “Ten Commandments of Character Development” (see also:  The Ten Commandments of Character).  When you recognize, afford attention to, or praise a person for something only nature, a higher power, or God (if you’re so inclined to believe) can justly claim credit, you automatically help distort their sense of self-worth.  In both my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing, I make a careful distinction between self-esteem, which generally arises out of one’s intuitive appraisal of one’s innate abilities, attributes, and strengths, and self-respect, which can only arise from one’s retrospective assessment of the value of what what has done with what one has been given.  Unfortunately, I know all too many troubled characters who ooze unwarranted self-esteem but justifiably have no grounds for legitimate self-respect.  No one can claim credit for the neurological wiring that afforded them a 130 I.Q. or piercing blue eyes.  But what someone chooses to do in life, the consideration they give to making the more pro-social choices, and the way they use the talents and abilities they have been blessed with, is to the person’s sole credit.  The conscientious and noble exercise of our will:  that’s the heart of meritorious conduct.  And making the more socially responsible decision is generally the harder choice.  But like any other behavior, if we recognize and reinforce someone for making the tougher, more correct choices, they’re likely to make them more often.  Giving credit where credit is due is essential for the development of healthy self-appraisal.  We need to recognize people much less for the desirable attributes they possess and reward them more for the right things they do.

Unfortunately, our culture almost completely ignores the value of meritorious conduct.  This is really problematic because for some individuals, who are struggling hard with their character development issues, even some very small efforts on their part to do better constitute some significantly meritorious events.  And they need to be reinforced for these small efforts if they are to persist in their moves toward self-improvement.  But all too often we recognize or reward folks for all the wrong things.  And the consequences of that are visible every day.  If you really want to help bend someone’s ego pathologically out of shape here’s what you do:

  • Recognize them for who they are, not what they do.
  • Be enamored of their gifts, not of their difficult choices and actions.
  • Send them the constant message that it’s what they bring to the table that really counts, not how they conduct themselves when they’re at the table.

I recently heard Charlie Sheen say in an interview that the mere fact that he’s sustained a successful 30-year career is proof positive that he is a “special person” He deftly sidestepped all of the crazy and obnoxious behaviors he’s known to have engaged in, some of which still occur, and even had the audacity to suggest that others should accept the fact that “special people” have “special problems.”  Sadly, he wants us to judge him like he judges himself: based on what he can do, and not how he has conducted himself.  And because his new TV series is likely to be funny and appeal to a certain audience, he’ll feel not only validated but rewarded for the perspective he holds.  And those tuning in will have helped provide him yet another powerful reason not to change course or make of himself any different a person.

11 thoughts on “How to Inflate an Ego in Three Easy Steps

  1. It occurs me to ask. what are their weaknesses? The C-As? They study us for ours. We may as well be aware of theirs…

    1. Good question, Vera, but not one that I’m always comfortable answering because some are inclined to try and out-manipulate their manipulators. But the short answer to your question is that all the aggressive personalities, including the covert-aggressive, share one very simple and dominant trait, which could, if you wish, be seen as a weakness in that they are so governed by this tendency. The simply have to win, to be on top, in control, in the dominant or one-up position. It’s that simple. And given that, there’s a surefire predictability to their behavior. That’s why, as I suggest in my book, looking for the “win-win” possibilities can be so empowering. They’ll also do everything they can to win, including lie, cheat, steal, etc. and mostly in subtle and hard-to-detect ways. Nonetheless, they often leave a trail of nefarious conduct that when well-documented, exposes them for the crafty devils they are.

      In short, their doing-in is always the result of their inflexibility of style. Having to win, and to do so at all costs, actually makes them somewhat vulnerable, especially to those who have their number.

      1. Yes, that could be the mindset. 🙂 But really, most of us have no desire to join them in their sick game, esp. now that we see it clearly.

        Seems Christianity was, one could say, a rather successful attempt to outbully the bullies with an elaborate cosmology mixed with terror and hellfire. But in the end, it unraveled.

        I am not looking for another one. I do think it might be empowering for those of us looking to neutralize bully tactics to keep their weaknesses in mind… (?)

          1. Thanks so much for this. Can I ask you to expand on what you mean by ‘focusing…externally’? Do you mean something like external locus of control?

          2. Locus of control has to do with perceptions and attributions about where control is centered. We don’t have power over people, places, and things, although we can exert influence. But usually we deceive ourselves about the extent of such influence. Still, we have unquestionable power over what we do. And putting our attention on and investing energy into what we have power over is edifying, whereas investing similar energy in things we don’e have power over is, ultimately, self-defeating and depressing.

  2. And another question. How many of them are there? Fewer women than men? I read somewhere that sociopaths are 1-4 in a 100. I am betting CAs are far more common… my life certainly has not lacked any, alas.

    1. “Sociopathy” or “Psychopathy” has become the personality label “du jour” because of the plethora of books on the subject in the last 10 years. But folks who truly have the condition are actually rare. The bigger problem is the very wide spectrum of character disturbance, with sociopaths occupying a place on the continuum, but there also being many other character-impaired individuals (including covert-aggressors) along the spectrum. I think the biggest single reason why even professionals overstate the prevalence of sociopathy is the awareness they have of how serious and widespread character dysfunction is but they lack a formal framework (which is why I developed mine) for understanding the various manifestations of character-impairment short of full-blown sociopathy.

      1. I’ve found that my experience with my ex has closely resembled that of a sociopath (him) and me his victim. But after much reading an reflection I no longer regard him as simply a “sociopath” or “psychopath” because I have read case studies (one done in Canada on prisoners) and people like that are usually very specifically driven to criminality and vicious behavior towards others. Whereas CDs or Narcissists are different in their approach- they DO CARE deeply but being so in love with their false ego masking deep insecurity they only care for themselves. Plus, CDs won’t do things that would harm themselves- it’s instinctive and it appears from the outset to be conflicting with lack of self-esteem. They want to preserve the false self-image and therefore are usually very afraid of being arrested or criminal behaviors or ending up in prison! This is a difficult distinction to relate to people who have relationships with people who are clearly manipulative and controlling- they aren’t necessarily psychopaths- they are people who don’t experience and probably can’t experience a deep level of empathy for others. They are highly self-engaged in trying to control anything in their world. They are the stalkers, the constant rob-callers, the last-word takers- they MUST have it. They can’t live without it. And if they have children they work on the kids for adulation and admiration they need- and it works, for awhile until the child reaches reason and decides that they are able to see the flaws. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and the exalted individual gets mirrored in the child, unfortunately. I sound like I have the answers, I don’t. I wish I did. But having a clearly defined plan for dealing with these kinds of people is highly recommended- because knowing their weaknesses is really not that useful. They mask their true selves- you aren’t gonna get in there to wound them. They also seem to know that you are trying- so the best medicine is to limit their ability to control you and always let them have the last word. Those last words are an echo chamber- ignore them like you are in a court of law and the words are not evidence based therefore cannot be considered- thus stricken from the record. Avoid trying to be like them in order to “understand” them. That is the worst thing you can do- especially if you already have problems yourself!You don’t need to understand- you ignore, have empathy for their illness, avoid. Not passively- actively. It’s the only thing that works. The active avoidance means you ignore behaviors that are controlling and only pay heed to something they do that can potentially harm or affect you and your children because passivity will always come with a surprise you need to be guarded in your efforts to avoid! Never try to outwit someone who is CD or a narcissist, silence and time are the best weapons. They will find someone else, I guarantee it.

        1. Hi Emily, I’d like to clarify something about psychopaths, many of not most are not violent or “criminals” in the typical sense of the word. There is a lot of confusion surrounding the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath. Many variations on that but everything I’ve put together would poit to a psychopath takes a personal satisfaction in the damage they do. They have the intention to harm vs a sociopath who’s damage is collateral damage as a result of what they are after. BUT there is also the thinking that the distinction between the two is a mute point in that they both fall on the same continum. The studies you are refering to ARE done on prisoners because they are a captive audience and psychopaths who are not in prison are not going to jump at the chance to reveal themselves of participate in any kind of a study, that’s for sure. On the self esteem comment, Dr. Simon repeatedly points out that most of these idiots have no problem with a lack of self esteem, they tend to esteem themselves too highly and it’s usually objectively undeserved. Self respect is usually what is lacking.

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